With the closure of Tales Studio in Japan there was a great deal of fear that the future of the Tales series was all but doomed in America. Thankfully that doesn't appear to be the case and PS3 owners finally have a proper entry in the franchise on the Sony console. Tales of Graces F may be a port of a Wii title from 2009 but that shouldn't scare fans of the franchise. In fact, Graces may be one of the best entries in the entirety of the franchise. I don't throw that claim around lightly, as someone who has adored the Tales games since the PS1 days (I wasn't tech savvy enough to know how to remove the two wedges that blocked me from import SNES games and Phantasia). With characters that are engaging and a battle system that is always entertaining Tales of Graces F is the next evolution in a franchise that Namco Bandai would have to be insane to ever end in the West.
Let's get some of the minor issues with the game out of the way. First, as interesting as the characters are, the story itself manages to be riddled with tropes and comes off as hokey initially. The game starts in an interesting manner; you assume the role of Asbel Lhant, son and heir apparent of the Lhant family. A precocious child, he manages to be off-putting initially with his beliefs that he is always in the right and can protect and save everybody, and this comes to a head during the extensive prologue as he attempts to save the life of the amnesiac Sophie and his princely friend Richard. The story then fast forwards seven years and opens up a much larger story about friendship, brotherhood, war, and survival, as the three continents of Windor, Fendel, and Strahta fight to control a substance known as 'eleth' that does everything from heat homes to provide potable water and is a veritable lifeblood that keeps the populace alive. At times it's a little overbearing, and has characters that come off as overly rigid, like Asbel's brother Hubert, whose nature has been shaped by being sent away as a young boy, a bargaining chip with a rival land. Then you've got the spunky Pascal who is just a ball of energy that cannot be contained but manages to be endearing throughout. The story itself takes quite a while to open up, with the biggest shift in the plot taking place after the second of seven chapters. Getting yourself ready for end-game can take as little as thirty hours, but the completionist will find a lot more to do with plenty of sidequests and seemly unimportant tasks to complete that go a long way toward getting the most out of the sixty dollar entry fee.
The second issue I take with Tales of Graces F is that this is a port. What that means is that this really wasn't built for the PS3 in the first place, and as such the graphics aren't really a showcase piece for the hardware. But on the flipside there is a wealth of additional content, including an epilogue that was not present on the original release. The game is still certainly attractive and will take games across a variety of locales that at times look fantastic and at other times are simply colorful. The game features a soundtrack composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who gamers will recognize from previous games in the Tales franchise along with a number of Square Enix games released over the past decade. The music fits in well with the game, but is ultimately a soundtrack that finds itself on the forgettable end of the spectrum. The game features an English voice acting cast with some names that gamers will find present in a number of anime titles released over the past few years. The voice acting is pretty solid, it's interesting to see the growth of a character like Sophie, who goes from an emotionless and robotic sounding amnesiac to a character who has a greater range of emotions than she initially lets on, and Cassandra Morris does a great job of conveying this. A Japanese voice track would have been appreciated, and hell, I would have been okay with it being offered as DLC. We'll see if Namco Bandai takes heed of that backhanded request for a future content pack.
The last point I'd want to make is going to be a matter of contention, but some people like this kind of stuff so I might as well bring it up, there is no 'overworld' map in the traditional sense. Every locale can be reached on foot, with optional modes of transportation that can take players to whatever town they like as they are opened up. This makes exploring a lot different than previous Tales games, and some people are going to like that, some aren't. Personally I'd prefer to get involved with the story more often than traveling around a map looking for specific islands I can land on with a flying airship like in games past. But for some people it's a classic part of the franchise that shouldn't be toyed with. When considering that there are only three continents that players will be exploring, the world feels a bit smaller than in previous games as well. Again this is something that can be debated about the pros and cons of such a design decision but for me personally it doesn't really add or take away from the experience of the game.
That's enough negativity for now. Let's talk about what makes Tales of Graces F a joy to play. First and foremost is the combat system. An RPG can live or die by its battle system, and Tales of Graces F has one of the strongest combat systems in the franchise. Described as the “Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System” (SS-LiMBS) it allows players a great deal of depth in how to dispatch enemies. Each character in the party learns two types of attacks, A-Types and B-Types. A-Type attacks are more physical in nature and serve as a branch to the B-Type attacks that are more magical in nature. Each character has a limited pool of Chain Capacity (CC) that allows them to attack, with each move consuming a set amount of CC. Using up all of a characters CC will put them at a slight disadvantage as they'll have to wait for their meter to fill up in between attacks, but it provides a point of strategy as gamers will have to plan their attacks wisely to get enemies in as long a combo as possible. As combos are pulled off, or damage is sustained, an 'Eleth Guage' meter will fill in either direction depending on who is dealing or receiving damage. Once the meter is filled for either side, the 'Eleth Burst' mode will initiate and players will have an infinite amount of CC at their disposal, allowing for massive combos and incredible amounts of damage to be dealt with special Mystic Arts that are learned through special titles or events that occur throughout the game. On the opposite side of that, enemies can also achieve the 'Eleth Burst' mode and can wreak havoc on a party, pulling off special attacks in succession that will keep players on the defensive for the duration of the burst mode.
Players are free to move about the battlefield in line with the enemy that is the primary target; players are also allowed to move around enemies in a 360 degree motion allowing for dodges and parries that can refill CC faster, provided the right skills have been unlocked. This movement system may seem like a minor addition, but it adds so much depth to battles, allowing players to better manipulate enemy placement and gives the Tales of Graces combat a bit of an edge over other JRPGs that try to incorporate real-time combat. Players level up through the standard experience point system, but the “Title” sub-system is where a majority of character growth takes place. As events are cleared or certain milestones in combat are achieved, players will unlock titles for each of the characters. These titles have five levels with a new skill or stat boost opened up as each level is unlocked. These skills are improved with SP that can be gained in battle or by completing requests at the inns in each of the cities. Players will always have a large number of titles at their disposal, so character growth won't stagnate until the literal end of the game, and trophy hunters will have a lot to unlock if they want to 'complete' the game.
Another new addition to the Tales franchise is Dualizing system. This is a typical crafting system the offers hundreds of items for players to create, and is, surprisingly, a major part of the game. Crafting items with the Dualize system allows players to strengthen their weapons and armor for a much cheaper price than buying new gear at each town, alternatively players can just sell the stuff that the Dualize system can create to get new items. The items created through Dualizing can be used to fulfill requests at inns or can be used in battle, so there's never a shortage of gels or food for players to use. Players are also given an eleth mixer that can produce items and food on its own in exchange for eleth that can be replenished in towns. If combat gets to be a bit too tough, throw some food in the eleth mixer and under certain conditions it will replenish life during or after battle. The more the mixer is used, the faster its capacity grows, allowing it to create bigger and better items more frequently so it is absolutely imperative that it is used over the course of the game.
Tales of Graces F offers a difficulty adjustment setting that actually helps players beyond providing an extra challenge. Enemies will actually provide better drops if players play the game above the 'Normal' difficulty setting. I spent almost the entire game at the 'Moderate' difficulty, feeling moments of weakness during particularly tough boss battles, but powered through and felt properly rewarded for it. This lead to a number of satisfying battles, but also showed that the friendly AI isn't as smart as I had hoped. Players can tweak the AI actions to be more geared towards offense or defense, or if the computer proves to be a bit lacking up to three friends can join in and control each of the characters on the battlefield.
Tales of Graces F is a fine JRPG on a console that has been somewhat short of quality titles in the genre. PS3 owners that are a fan of the Tales franchise would have nothing to fear about this being an inferior port, especially with the additional content that is present. There is a little bit of scam-y DLC present, but it doesn't really affect the game, it's just disappointing to see the game be monetized in such a manner. The problems I did have with the game pale in comparison to the likeable characters and amazingly fun battle system. It's quite surprising to see this series hold on for almost as long as the Final Fantasy franchise, yet it always seemed to take a back-seat in the minds of gamers. Hopefully Tales of Graces F is the game that gets the franchise a bit more notoriety in America as it's an excellent game and should be in every RPG fan's library.